Issue No.
157, May 2011 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Khalidi Library Treasures Dick Doughty/Saudi Aramco World/PADIA.
Dick Doughty/Saudi Aramco World/PADIA.
Dick Doughty/Saudi Aramco World/PADIA.

Within Are Precious Books
By Sami Tabar
The shade of the Old City is welcome as I walk past the trinkets and juice stalls of Al Quds, Jerusalem. Friday prayers are finishing. A large Israeli flag flutters above strings of red, white, black and green cloth in the ancient urban maze.

Haifa Khalidi opens the emerald wrought-iron door, smiling. Elegant in a flower-print blouse, her soft grey eyes beam with warmth and hospitality.

“Ahalan wa sahalan, habibi,” Haifa says, her keys jangling in the lock.

Half a block north on The Road of Chains, Haifa stops before another green door. In white paint, the mantle above the arched entrance reads “Khalidi Library: Established 1900.”

Unlocking it, she says that in 1967, her father Haidi found an Israeli “absentee property” sign on the door. He demanded its removal.

“He asked them, ’Don’t you know how to read?’” Haifa explains, laughing in the Palestinian way: chuckling through anger. Her family was not always victorious in protecting their inherited property.

The door closes behind us and the rumble of the busy street instantly mutes. It’s almost cold inside the first chamber, a large marble hall with a mammoth desk, mounted artefacts, and three ancient graves. Originally, this was a mausoleum for a Mamluk lord and his two sons. The sanctity is palpable.

Haifa walks into the next room and stops before six portraits in gilded frames on a shelf of rare books. These men are her ancestors, the progenitors and protectors of the Khalidi waqf, or trusteeship.

Her distant relative, Muhammad Sun’ Allah al-Khalidi, was a powerful judge in Ottoman Jerusalem. In 1721, Sun’ Allah handed his son a list of 85 titles to be held in perpetuity, bequeathing revenue from his massive land holdings in the Old City to pay for the trusteeship. His lineage up to Haifa expanded this literary legacy to today’s collection: 6,000 printed books and 1,278 manuscripts.

According to Dr. Lawrence Conrad, a British historian who catalogued and salvaged many of the Khalidi’s treasures, the Khalidi trusteeship blossomed as the family’s patriarchs became involved in the medieval literary market, bargaining from Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul to Mecca and Medina. The library’s famous, extensive amount of umm, or original, manuscripts resulted from this trade in tomes.

Conrad wrote that the Khalidis saw themselves as advancing a long tradition- from the Greeks and Abbasids-of knowledge as “divine light that, in order to be truly useful, must be recorded in papyrus scrolls or books, and made available in some systematic way, i.e. in libraries.”

The Khalidi Library contains short essays on the Islamic interpretation of Adam and Eve, Ottoman legal treatises, medical texts, an 80-verse Muslim creed, an interpretation of the basmala, a paper on inflection and concealed senses in Arabic poetry, Sufi chants, a Kurdish-Arabic dictionary, a critical essay of the Christian gospels, poetic verse complaining about governmental and other abuses, works by Darwin, Dante, Gibbon, Milton, Shakespeare, and a Khalidi descendant’s Arabic translation of Victor Hugo’s works.

Found within the massive stacks is a letter symbolic of the Khalidi’s literary fervour. In the letter, a Khalidi writes to his wife about a journey to Alexandria, Egypt in search of a 5,000-page, five-volume hadith. In a bad storm on the return voyage, one of its five volumes was lost at sea. His desperation and desire to replace it are obvious.

Amidst the musty scent of old documents in the portrait room is a calligraphic statement of Gaza’s Ottoman governor, warning Jerusalem’s qadi commanders of Napoleon’s nineteenth-century invasion of Egypt:

Al-kuffar al-faransa al-mala’in, damarrahum Allah ajma’in.

“The damned French infidels, may God destroy them all.”

Haifa beckons me to a spiral staircase in the corner, leading up to a large attic filled with rows of metal bookshelves where she unveils her prizes.

“It’s almost a thousand years old,” Haifa says, lifting a heavy collection of the Prophet Mohammad’s words and deeds, Al Hadith. Upon opening, she reveals careful, colourful artistry 900 years older than Zionism. It was printed in Kairouan, Tunisia. “The Khalidis used to travel,” she quips.

Haifa then displays a 400-year old Qur’an, a sixth-century poison and antidote book translated through Persian from Sanskrit to Arabic, and a graphic chronicle of Salah el Din’s victory over the Crusaders at the Battle of Hittin. Beaming as she closes the boxes, Haifa recounts how students are scanning and digitizing her family’s legacy. It is one way, she says, to protect it.
At the bottom of the stairs, the window above the Khalidi family portraits looks out onto what used to be family property. It is now a yeshiva, a Jewish school, appropriated first by the Israeli government for so-called security and then handed over to the Judaization project of former Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren. (Goren is famous for breaking into the Temple Mount to pray in 1967 and later advocating its complete destruction).

“Political vicissitudes arising from Israeli expropriation policies beginning in 1948, and especially in the wake of the 1967 War, have had particularly deleterious effects [on the library],” the historian Conrad once wrote. “The effective operation of waqf is of course entirely dependent upon the continuing integrity of its income-producing resources, and in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City alone the Khalidis lost sixteen waqf properties in 1967... in the 1980s the annual revenue of the Hammam al-’Ain waqf supporting the library was reportedly only about 20-22 Jordanian dinars, or about 25 pounds, clearly on a mere fraction of the costs of running such a facility based in Jerusalem since its recapture by Salah el Din in 1187.”

Sipping a Bavarian beer in her house, Haifa teeters between humour, fury, and sadness as she tells of her family’s struggle since 1948 to sustain in the face of Israeli colonization. For now, her presence establishes a fact on the ground.

“My being here is very good for the house,” Haifa says. “If no one is here, they will take it.”

While Israelis knew Goren as the first head of the Military Rabbinate and Israel’s leading rabbi for a decade, the Khalidis knew him as a thief. Once, Haifa said, Goren jumped onto their roof from the yeshiva.

“He offered my uncle a blank check,” she explains. “My uncle refused, of course. Yanni, [the check] had no power at all. It’s powerless. I am not going to sell our homes, our lands, our dignity.”

On the same roof overlooking the Western Wall and the Noble Sanctuary, Haifa explains the Zionist campaign against her family. Formerly Khalidi property-but never sold or voluntarily transferred-the neighbouring buildings now house security stations and the Makhame and Beit Idra yeshivas founded by Goren. She gazes down into the sparse stone plaza of the Western Wall and laments.

“This was a neighbourhood, habibi,” she says, waving her hand over the empty space, detailing from her childhood memory the old Moroccan Quarter of Jerusalem. This was before the bulldozers excised the community to expose remnants of the purported First Temple.

“One day,” she says. “In just one day.”

The Friday sun sets behind Jerusalem as throngs of observant Jews rush the ancient rocks stuffed with prayer notes. Shabbat begins with the blare of the shofar horn as Haifa turns, offers another drink, and picks up one of her many cats.

She is last mutawilla, or guardian, of the Khalidi legacy. The future of the library is unknown: funds are scant and no heir is apparent.

“Any scholars who would like to come are welcome,” says Haifa. “We have [books and manuscripts from the collection] on microfilm, and they are available on the internet. Anyone who would come: ahalan wa sahalan.” www.khalidilibrary.org/indexe.html

On my way out of Jerusalem, I again pass the Khalidi Library. I remember something Conrad found, buried in stacks of ancient manuscripts. The original sign, in French and Arabic, boasted an understatement: “Fiha kutub qayyima. Dans ici sont les livres precieux.”

Within are precious books.

Sami Tabar is the editor of the Ramallah-based Palestine Monitor and deeply concerned over regional, environmental, and cultural devastation.
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